Friday, October 31, 2008

$1865.69 Per Second

Today is Halloween, the day we celebrate things that are frightening. For instance, the news yesterday that Exxon Mobil had posted the largest quarterly profit in U.S. history - $14.83 billion dollars on revenue of $137.7 billion - at a time when the American economy is in the toilet and some people who actually have jobs can't get to them because they can't afford the gas to drive there. That's scary. I'll take the walking corpses and the vampires and gory axe murderers any day.

According to the article, Exxon Mobil earned $1865.69 per second in the past fiscal quarter. For comparison's sake, last year I earned approximately $0.006 per second...before taxes. And by modern American standards, I've got a pretty good job.

I am clearly in the wrong line of work.

Once again, I'm left wishing that I understood more about economics and finance so that I could understand how it is that a firm can earn so much money and still get various tax breaks and incentives, or justify such enormous profits when the rest of the economy is so badly wrecked. The cost of petroleum products is not responsible for the current crisis, of course, but it certainly doesn't help.

A university-trained economist, backed by reinforced battalions of lawyers, would patiently explain that I just don't understand the problems of the petroleum industry and the fundamental workings of the economy. He would shake his head in bemusement that I would be so silly as to compare my earnings per second to those of an enormous corporation. Well, that may be true. But I need some way to wrap my feeble brain around numbers this vast, which have such a huge impact on my life. I can't comprehend earnings of $137.7 billion, or the full scope of a $700 billion bank bailout. But I can understand $1865.69 compared to $0.006.

When you sit down to think about really scary things this Halloween, think about how much you earn per second in comparison to how much Exxon Mobil does.

And then fix yourself a drink to make it all seem better.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Life in Bozeman

If you made a list of the places you really wanted to see before you shuffle off your mortal coil, chances are that Bozeman, Montana, wouldn't rank quite as high as, say, Rome or Paris or Rio de Janeiro. Nevertheless, the city which describes itself on its website as "the ultimate dreamtown" has a charm all its own. I've never been there, but I think I like the town because of a wonderful website I stumbled upon a while back: The Best of the Bozeman Chronicle Police Reports.

Living in Disneyland-on-the-Potomac, I'm used to police blotter reports in the local papers that chronicle murders, assaults, auto theft, burglaries, and other sorts of mayhem. How cool is it to read some of the blotter items from Bozeman, as memorialized in the website:

"A man wanted to know if it was legal to carry a real sword on Halloween but did not answer his phone when police tried to call back;"

"A woman reported that a man was trying to break into her neighbor’s house on Chisler Drive in Belgrade at 11:35 a.m. She called back and said the would-be burglar was actually a tree;"

"A woman returning home found her TV “missing” and called police. She called 911 again to say someone, possibly her husband, had simply moved it;"

"A person on Gallatin Road reported a duck at large. The person was worried that the duck might cause a traffic accident;"

“'Some type of animal head' was in the southbound lane of North 19th Avenue;"

"A tall, skinny man was going through garbage cans in the alley behind Tracy Avenue around 10:30 a.m. and every time he bent over, his pants fell down and he was not wearing any underwear;" and,

"A motorist was having difficulty passing a horse running down Norris Road at 11:55 a.m."

I like the part about the horse running down the road at 11:55 AM ... around here, it's usually just the backside.

Check out the Bozeman Chronicle Police Reports. You won't have to wait until Cartoon Saturday to get your ya-ha's for the week.

And if Amanda decides to rescind the offer of her spare room, I may move to Bozeman.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Can I Have a Look in Your Bag, Please?

The local discussional anthill was kicked over yesterday when this article appeared on the front page of The Washington Post: Metro to Randomly Search Riders' Bags. The searches were a topic of huge and intense discussion in blogs, e-mails, offices, and (not surprisingly) Metro trains and buses; everyone has an opinion either for or against, and no one that I read or ran across seems to have been neutral or indifferent.

As with discussion of most major issues nowadays, the arguments tended to polarize around two extremes. Zipcode, with her background in law enforcement, was on one side of the argument, and her blog post on the topic featured photos of the Madrid railway bombings as an example of what could happen if the police don't have the authority to randomly search bags. On the other side was blogger Shannon, whose post on the topic was titled Say 'So Long' to Your Civil Liberties?

Who's right?

Well, as usual, there are good and legitimate arguments to be made for and against. Shannon's fear for the loss of her civil liberties is not unreasonable, given the current administration's reckless disregard for the Constitution in favor of increasing, centralized presidential powers. The so-called "warrentless wiretap" issue is a prime example: instead of going to Congress and explaining why existing powers were insufficient to deal with a perceived threat, the administration simply bulled ahead on its own authority and - in violation of every rule of common sense - shot itself in its legal, moral, and ethical feet (okay, Mr Bush only has two feet, gimme some license, here). Shannon's recurring point is that she hasn't broken any laws, and so shouldn't have to submit to random searches. She laments, "That's not the America I grew up with."

Zipcode's argument, which is equally compelling, is that random bag searches are a minimalist security measure and a necessary evil in a dangerous world. I can agree with this. While Shannon is correct that this isn't the America we all grew up with, neither is the rest of the world. For whatever reason, there are people out there who don't like Americans and would just as soon see us dead in large numbers. At a time when there are utterly fanatical people who believe God has given them the authority and responsibility to murder infidels, or that their political beliefs are so compelling that murder is a justifiable tactic, I tend to be a bit more concerned about my safety than I am in the face of "ordinary" threats like muggers, venal Congressmen, and greedy bankers.


We need to take some measures to prevent - or at least, minimize the chance of - murderous attacks. Almost every blog post I read or interview on the topic I heard yesterday that was opposed to the searches focused on one of two arguments:

First is the "I'm innocent and my rights are being violated" argument. Well, yes, chances are you are innocent. Shannon is unlikely to want to kill me because I'm non-religious, or Caucasian, or have gray hair, or am right-handed. But a simple look at the world around us shows that there are others who would want to kill me for any of those reasons, or others.

The other is the "Random searches don't work, this is a stupid idea, my commuting is already hosed up and this will make it worse" argument. Well, random searches aren't a perfect remedy. If you randomly search every 17th person and the 18th one is the one with the suicide vest, was the search useless? Even a 100% search will miss some things (look at the periodic exposes of the things reporters manage to sneak past airport security in search of a story). In my view, random searches are, in fact, a waste of time except insofar as they may deter an amateur, not-totally-committed-to-the-cause attacker. You can't say it in the politically correct America of 2008, but if we're going to search people, we need to do it scientifically...and this means in line with established profiles of the sort of people whose looks and actions indicate that they are more likely to be a threat. Searching gray-haired Granny from Peoria is pretty much a waste of time when we already know that a bearded fellow who looks nervous and is wearing baggy clothes unsuited to the weather is more likely to pose a threat.

So if you oppose random searches, what's your alternative? Do you have a better suggestion?

We have become prisoners of our desire to have it both ways. We want security, but are unwilling to endorse the measures which will help ensure it. We cherish our Constitutionally-guaranteed rights, but are reluctant to admit that those rights can be abused by those who believe in their right and duty to kill us. We're Americans...we believe there's some technological fix to the problem that will let us keep all our traditional freedoms while fingering only the bad guys.

It won't happen.

I believe that we can, in fact, have it both ways if we are willing to look at the problem rationally. If we can admit there's a problem (and that's perhaps the hardest part for Joe the Plumber to acknowledge), and then engage in a rational discussion of the measures we can take within the context of the Constitution, we can probably find a way that won't automatically result in reinforced regiments of ACLU lawyers storming courthouses around the country. But we have to have the discussion. We can't go on with the black-white, either-or approach to a deadly problem.

I ride the Metro every day. I think about what happened in London and in Madrid, and about the bus bombings that periodically terrorize Israel. It can happen here. We need to decide, rationally, how to give those who are sworn to protect us the tools to prevent it.

In the meantime, go ahead and search my briefcase and lunch box. I'm as innocent as Shannon, if probably not as attractive.

I didn't say that.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Really Scary Things

Halloween is almost upon us. Costume makers are cranking out hideous new masks featuring blood, fangs, and exposed innards, The Halloween Store has reappeared to sell masks, fog generators, fiberglass gravestones, and life-sized cackling animated witches (most of which look very much like my sixth-grade science teacher), and the TV channels feature spook-a-thons which recycle all the hideous horror movies they can dig out of their deepest vaults.

But beyond the opportunity to make a fast buck (and bring economic delight to the lives of dentists who repair the damage caused by ingestion of vast amounts of candy), Halloween also provides an opportunity to reflect on the things that really frighten us.

What scares you? Is it shambling, rotting zombies? Half-seen ghosts lurking in dark hallways? Guys whose idea of a hot date is a machete and a hockey mask? Women looking for commitment?

That stuff's all minor-league. This is the year 2008, and there is some very, very frightening stuff out there. Here's what scares Bilbo...

1. Single-minded, single-issue voters. If the only thing that matters to you is being able to own guns, prevent abortions, stop global warming, or deport illegal immigrants, you scare me.

2. The Internal Revenue Service. Taxes may be a necessary evil, but the IRS (Capt Picard and craziequeen, think Inland Revenue) can put the terrifying mask on that evil. No other agency of the government can make your life as much of a living hell as the IRS can, with its incomprehensible tax forms and rules and its ability to loot your bank account or send you to jail for the most innocent of accounting mistakes and the most minor of errors.

3. The Far Right and the Far Left. The worst part is that they're so busy shouting insults at each other, they don't realize how scary they are.

4. Sarah Palin. A nice lady in the wrong place at the wrong time. The prospect of this well-meaning but utterly unready lady as president is enough to make me beg Amanda for the use of her spare room in Palembang until everything blows over.

5. People Who Think They Can Call/Text/Read and Drive at the Same Time. I wrote here long ago that I think I'm most likely to die when I get run over by someone too busy chatting on his/her cell phone to notice that I'm crossing the street.

6. Absolute Religious Fundamentalists. There are people out there so absolutely convinced in their righteousness of their beliefs that they believe they're entitled to kill me if I don't believe the same way. How do you argue with someone who absolutely, totally believes he's got God's permission to do what he perceives as God's will, and isn't the least bit interested in hearing anything else?

8. Absolute Political Fundamentalists. If your entire arsenal of political argument consists of pointing at your opponent and shouting liberrraaalll!!! in a voice dripping with scorn, or if you think every conservative is a brain-dead opponent of taxation and evolution, you really scare me.

9. Democrats and Republicans Already Lawyering Up to Contest an Election That Hasn't Even Taken Place Yet. The people may speak, but it's the lawyers who get heard. That's scary.

There are more things that scare me, but this is a good start to a long list. Let's hurry up and get past Halloween and the election so that I can get to Thanksgiving and Christmas and think about good things again.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Justifiable Phonicide

I need some legal advice. Or maybe some law enforcement advice. Maybe I can ask Zipcode.

Is Justifiable Phonicide a punishable crime?

You know, phonicide. As in when you crush your telephone with a nine-pound sledge, drop it into the toilet, launch it on a high parabolic trajectory from your upstairs window (that's actually called defenestration), or put it in the driveway and roll your Gargantua X-5000 SUV back and forth over it a few times.

I need to know what the penalties are before I commit phonicide on every telephone in my house. This is likely to happen in the very near future because I am perilously close to the limits of my tolerance for inane political robo-calls. This level of tolerance is quite small to start with, but after receiving six of those calls yesterday ... that would be Sunday, the so-called day of rest ... I have officially had it.

Riddle me this, Batman: have you ever actually listened to one of these robo-calls? I didn't think so. I have never met anyone who didn't either screen them out with Caller ID or hang up on them after the telltale two-second bit of silence while the tape starts to spin. These calls are a politically useless and personally unwanted invasion of my privacy. It's bad enough that I have to see all this BS on television and listen to it on the radio...stay out of my phone!

Here is an open message to those who generate political robo-calls:

1. I don't care who approved your message. If you're calling my telephone, I didn't approve it and I don't want to hear it.

2. If you're calling to tell me how bad the other guy is, I especially don't want to hear it. If you expect me to listen to you, tell me why, exactly, I should vote for you instead of him.

3. I value my privacy. I don't give my home telephone number - and especially my cell phone number - to very many people. If I've chosen to give you my number, you can consider it a mark of respect and friendship. If you've scooped up my number from a database somewhere, I don't have the least interest in what you have to say. Don't even bother.

3. My phone number is listed in the National Do Not Call Registry. I have learned, to my sorrow, that the list has a large number of exceptions which allow various well-connected individuals and organizations to ignore my expressed wishes. Political campaigns are allowed to call me without my consent, as are charities, surveys, businesses with which I have an "existing business relationship," and debt collectors. Regardless of whether or not you have an exception, and particularly if you are a political campaigner, don't call.

4. Good telephones can be expensive. With the economy in the toilet (and, by the way, political robo-caller, what's your guy going to do about it?), I can't afford to smash them all the time. Help me live within my telephone replacement budget.

Don't leave me open to a charge of phonicide, justified or not.

If I haven't personally given you my number and my permission, don't call.

So there.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

"I'm Re-cy-calin' Mem-oh-rees..."

I'm not a huge fan of country music, but the old song "Recycling Memories" by Moe Bandy is a clever mixture of eco-responsibility and good old goofy country music song titling. Why do I bring this up, you ask? Let me enlighten you...

One of the interesting things about blogging is that each time you find a blog you like, following that blog's links often takes you to other blogs you find you enjoy. This is one of the things that makes blogging such a dreadful time sink. One day I jumped from lacochran's bloggery to a blog called The Typing Makes Me Sound Busy, written by J-Money, described by lacochran as "...the funniest chick on the Internet. Period." My first visit to J-Money's blog yielded her hilarious description of a massage she recently received in a post titled The Bad Touch.

Which brings me to the "recycling memories" thing.

Back in 2004 Agnes and I took our first cruise vacation, sailing to Alaska on the good ship Coral Princess. I kept a journal during the cruise, which I later typed up into a 24-page magnum opus for my family history project. Reading J-Money's tale of her massage reminded me of my experience with the delightful Kelly on board the Coral Princess that August day five years ago. And so, inspired by J-Money and lifted from my memoirs of the Great Alaska Cruise of 2004, here is the story of Bilbo's Seaweed Massage...

"One of the features of the Coral Princess was the Lotus Spa, a large section of Deck 14 (Lido) aft fitted out as a full-service pamper-and-fuss-over-you-at-great-expense day spa offering a full range of various body treatments ranging from the cheap and simple (look at you naked and laugh hysterically) to the expensive (involving all sorts of exotic facials and massages using hot stones, seaweed, and other odd things). We had decided we’d treat ourselves to a massage, but when we booked the appointments, Agnes learned that (a) it was cheaper to have things done when the ship was in port (because most people left the ship, and it was thus harder for the spa staff to keep busy) and (b) an ordinary massage just wouldn’t do during a cruise. And so it was that we each ended up with an appointment for a seaweed massage and (for Agnes) a mini facial.

"I’ve had massages before, but never a seaweed massage, and so wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I appeared at the spa for my appointment. Agnes was already there, having started about an hour earlier, so I didn’t have any good intelligence. I was duly and cheerfully greeted by the perky young lady at the desk, who gave me a locker key, directed me to the men’s locker room, and told me to pick a locker, which contained a robe and slippers. All my clothes were to come off and be stored in the locker and, after donning the robe and slippers, I was to march across the hallway to the Relaxation Room, where my appointed massage therapist would pick me up in due course.

"The Relaxation Room turned out to be a large room tiled in greens and browns in a vaguely Roman design, and dotted with large stone tables like chaise lounges, each with a wavy top on which one lay down. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the surfaces were warmed, and nearly fell asleep lying there…kept awake only by the need to ensure that my robe stayed closed, the only other person in the room being a woman. Within a few minutes, I heard my name being called by a young lady who introduced herself (in a delightful British accent) as Kelly and handed me a clipboard with the necessary paperwork to fill out. I thought it rather detracted from the atmosphere to have to fill out forms, but that’s life, and so I answered all the questions about my health, bad habits, and assorted physical ailments, then lay back and waited for Kelly to return.

"Kelly soon came back and took me to one of the treatment rooms, which looked for all the world like any doctor’s office you’ve ever seen, and we spent a few minutes reviewing my bad neck, my tennis elbow, my hernias, etc, and she expounded on the marvelous benefits of a seaweed massage in drawing out all the evil toxins coursing through my aging body, and how smart I was to have chosen this wonderful treatment. She also asked, oddly, whether I was claustrophobic. She then said she’d step out for a moment so that I could remove my robe and slippers, put on a pair of silly little paper panties, and then lie face down on the table.

"This I did, noticing that the table was covered with a sheet of what appeared to be quilted aluminum foil. Kelly soon returned and began running water and fussing with bottles and jars. After a few minutes, she began slathering something all over my exposed back and legs. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t quite it. When I thought of a “seaweed massage,” I somehow thought of being covered in a layer of kelp or some such thing. The reality was that Kelly was liberally smearing me from head to foot with a viscous, gritty paste that felt rather like mayonnaise mixed with crushed walnut shells.

"She finished with my back and ordered me to turn over, whereupon she continued smearing her evil potion all over my front side (with the exception, of course, of that manly segment modestly covered by the silly little paper panties). When I was thoroughly covered in goo, Kelly proceeded to tuck my arms tightly against my sides, wrap the quilted foil sheet tightly around my body, and cover the whole with towels (hence the question about claustrophobia, I guess). She then told me to lie still (as if I had a choice at this point) and relax, and that she’d be back in a few minutes for the next step of the process. I lay there as ordered, sweating like the proverbial pig in my foil cocoon as the mighty forces of ground seaweed dragged the evil toxins kicking and screaming out of my body.

"Kelly returned in due course, unwrapped me, and then invited me to take a shower to clean off the seaweed goop and don a fresh pair of silly little paper panties.

"This was the first time I’d actually seen the stuff she’d slathered on me, and an evil-looking mess it was – thick and green and full of dark, gritty granules of something or other. If Lava made a pump-action hand soap, it would probably look a lot like this. It took a good while to get all the stuff washed off, while Kelly bustled around, arranging for Round Two outside the modestly-frosted shower door before again discretely withdrawing. I finally managed to get everything washed off, then emerged, put on my fresh silly little paper panties, and hopped back up on the table, now covered with a fresh layer of aluminum foil.

"Kelly returned, and we repeated the process of smearing me with seaweed goop and wrapping me up in my aluminum foil and towel cocoon. I had thought I was probably out of sweat, but from fresh reserves somewhere deep inside I managed once again to drive the remaining foul beasties from my innards on a tide of new perspiration. Kelly came back again, unwrapped me, and shoved me back into the shower to once again de-glop myself while she prepared for Round Three. I didn’t get a new pair of silly little paper panties this time, so I had to do my best to wash out the goop to reuse the old ones.

"Freshly showered and free of seaweed, I hopped back up on the table (now covered in sheets and towels) for the massage. Young Kelly did a marvelous job, working her way from each individual toe all the way up to my scalp, front and back. I hadn’t noticed that she had ten fingers on each hand, or that they were made of titanium, or that beneath her modest spa uniform she obviously had the musculature of a female Arnold Schwartzenegger. By the time she finished I never wanted to get up again. Fortunately for her, I was in no condition to resist when she gave me the bum’s rush out the door to recover my clothes.

"I met up with Agnes in the spa lounge, where there were pitchers of ice water with slices of orange or lemon to help rebuild the water levels depleted by the massage experience. We took a few minutes to drink water and compare notes, and then trudged back to our cabin to sit down and relax for a while ..."

And there you have it. Will I ever do it again? Massage, definitely. The seaweed thing, probably not. I just hope Ruth ("...a large, broad-backed woman, the kind that if placed on all fours would make an excellent coffee table..."), J-Money's Gestapo-trained massage therapist, hasn't gone to work for Princess Cruises...

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Cartoon Saturday

Toni Braxton was dropped from Dancing with the Stars instead of Cloris Leachman; there are still two weeks of inane campaigning to go before the election; Alan Greenspan has admitted that he just might have been wrong about the essential goodness and upright honesty of the markets; and Joe the Plumber should run off with the Hockey Mom, never to be seen again.

Yep. We still need Cartoon Saturday.

Rima wrote an ... um ... uplifting post the other day about living with her impressive - if not magnificent - superstructure, and tagged Mike to write about boobs or another body part of his choice. This ought to be interesting. This cartoon seemed appropriate, although I have been unable to confirm that Mike and Rima were the models.

I have a hard and knobby spot in the cobwebby depths of my heart for insurance companies. I found this cartoon not long after performing my guaranteed-to-get-the-toddler-laughing rendition of the story of The Three Little Pigs for my granddaughter...

Sad, but true...

I've eaten in places like this. With people like this.

And finally, from the department of That's Really Stupid, But Really Funny, comes an object lesson in picking your fights...

Oh, about a bonus cartoon? Poor Agnes is sick, and has been trying to sleep during the day. Unfortunately, it's election season, and her search for peace and quiet has been regularly interrupted by all the stupid, brainless robo-calls from desperate candidates. This is how things really ought to be...

Had Dante but known...

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Just When You Thought It Couldn't Get Any Weirder...

There are some very strange people out there. Besides Mike and I, I mean. Very strange people.

One of my co-workers sent me the text of this story yesterday, and I just had to dig up the link to make sure it was real: Online Divorcee Jailed After Killing Virtual Hubby. This is from the New York Times, folks, so you just know it's real.

If you choose not to follow the link, the Readers' Digest version of the story is this: A 43-year-old Japanese woman’s online avatar was divorced without warning by her digital husband in an interactive virtual game called “Maple Story.” This made the woman so angry that she hacked into her “husband’s” computer using the identification and password she got while their characters were happily (if virtually) married, logged into the game, and murdered her online husband's digital character. The man complained to police when he discovered that he had been digitally murdered. The woman has since been arrested on charges of illegally accessing a computer and manipulating electronic data; there is no indication that she planned any “real-world” murder.

I can just see this in the next version of the famous board game Clue (Cluedo, if you live in Europe): Miss Scarlet digitally murders Mr Boddy in the Chat Room with the Zeroes and Ones. No more of these messy murders with lead pipes and candlesticks.

How weird have things gotten when we now have to worry about virtual murder? What kind of life did this lady have? I (like fellow bloggers Canary and Andrea) have enough trouble with my real life to worry about inventing more problems through Second Life or Maple Story or some other game. The Times article points out that “virtual lives have had consequences in the real world,” citing the case of a Delaware woman who was arrested a few months ago on charges of plotting the real-life abduction of a boyfriend she met through Second Life.

Life is tough. Virtual life appears to be a bitch, too.

Just put down the mouse, step away from the keyboard, and nobody will get hurt.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Let Me Paint You a Picture...

Those of you who don't have the dubious pleasure of living in the "National Capital Region" (what we sometimes call Washington, DC, and its environs) probably either never see or don't care about some of the news stories that become major issues here. The most recent such story deals with portraits.

It began, as near as I can tell, with this important story in The Washington Post: Official Portraits Draw Skeptical Gaze. The story described one of the key preparations in some government agencies for the coming change of administration - "As the Bush presidency draws to a close, portrait artists can expect a surge in business from Cabinet secretaries and other elite political appointees who want to preserve their legacies -- and their images -- for posterity." CNN later picked up the story as a commentary by Campbell Brown, and I'm sure it made the late-night talk show monologues as well, not to mention page-twelve-below-the-fold of many other newspapers.

The point of the articles was not that we shouldn't honor outgoing officials (at least some of them), but that formal portraits are an unnecessary expense at a time of economic travail. According to the original Post story, a formal portrait can cost anywhere from $7500 to $50,000 or more. A Commerce Department official quoted in the story said that the $35,000 cost of the portrait of outgoing Commerce Secretary Carlos Guiterrez is actually a bargain, given that most artists charge "anywhere from $50,000 to $75,000."

And that probably doesn't include the cost of the obligatory garish, gilt-encrusted rococo frame.

Another issue is that of who rates a portrait. The President and the Cabinet Secretaries? Probably. But how far down the organizational chart does it go? Does the First Principal Deputy Assistant Under Secretary of State for Putting Up with the French deserve a portrait? How about the Environmental Protection Agency's Assistant Director for Disposal of Reeking Solid Waste?

I don't know for sure, but I'll bet there's some obscure law somewhere that actually spells it out.

So...if we cut back on portraits, how do we honor outgoing officials? The traditional gold watch and Certificate of Appreciation don't seem appropriate to honor someone whose government service can, say, contribute to worldwide economic collapse or the tanking of America's image.

Some have suggested that we can reduce the cost simply by resorting to high-quality, high-definition color photographs. The problem there, of course, is that even high-quality color photographs will fade in a few years without special care, while portraits painted in the 1500s are still with us. We could cut down on expenses by hiring the right artist...Capt Picard's story of having his portrait painted demonstrates one approach. Sculpture is pretty expensive, too, and statuary tends to be fairly large and heavy (can you imagine the weight of a bust of Dolly Parton?).

So what's the answer? What level of government official deserves to be memorialized, and what's the best way to do it? One of my co-workers suggested a contest in which the government distributes paint-by-numbers pictures of worthy officials to grade-school children, then selects the best for display. We could also establish a sliding scale of memorialization:

President - oil painting.
Vice President - watercolor painting.
Cabinet Secretary - pencil sketch.
All Others - appropriate caricature selected from doodles done at boring meetings.

What do you think? I'm looking forward to your ideas.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Economic and Gastronomic Odds and Ends

Today is Wednesday...Hump Day, to use the precise term. Seventeen days to go until we leave for our cruise (not that I'm counting or anything).

This morning I'm suffering from a serious case of creative constipation, and so I'll just pass on a few things for your enlightenment, edification, and amusement. And to fill up the space.

Mergers are a big thing nowadays as companies in trouble try to join up with other companies in trouble to produce new, larger companies in trouble. I thought this editorial cartoon about the proposed merger of Chrysler and GM was pretty accurate:

One of my co-workers, taking pity on me for my serious lack of understanding of economics and high finance, recently provided me with this handy glossary which explains some of the terms commonly used in reporting on the current economic crisis. You, too, may find it useful...

CEO - Chief Embezzlement Officer.

CFO - Corporate Fraud Officer.

BULL MARKET - A random market movement causing an investor to mistake himself for a financial genius.

BEAR MARKET - A 6-18 month period when the kids get no allowance, the wife gets no jewelry, and the husband gets no love.

VALUE INVESTING - The art of buying low and selling lower.

P/E RATIO - The percentage of investors wetting their pants as the market keeps crashing.

BROKER - What your financial advisor makes you.

STANDARD & POOR - Your life in a nutshell.

STOCK ANALYST - Idiot who just downgraded your stock.

STOCK SPLIT - When your ex-wife and her lawyer split your assets equally between themselves.

FINANCIAL PLANNER - A guy whose phone has been disconnected.

MARKET CORRECTION - A downward trend beginning the day after you buy stocks.

CASH FLOW - The movement your money makes as it disappears down the toilet.

YAHOO - What you yell after selling your junk stock to some poor sucker for $240 per share.

WINDOWS - What you jump out of when you're the sucker who bought someone's junk stock at $240 per share.

INSTITUTIONAL INVESTOR - Former investor who's now locked up in a nuthouse.

PROFIT - An archaic word no longer in use.

Now that autumn is here, it's the season for squash, which is one of my favorite vegetables, and apple cider, which is one of my favorite drinks. Squash is delicious, versatile, and not especially expensive (especially if you can buy it at a farmers' market); apple cider is great either cold or hot with cinnamon and other spices. Last night I made this wonderful soup which uses both squash and apple cider. It's a little bit of work, but it's really worth it.

Butternut Squash Soup with Cider Cream

5 tbsps butter
2½ lbs butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into ½-inch pieces (about 6 cups)
2 cups chopped leeks (white & pale green parts only)
½ cup chopped peeled carrot
½ cup chopped celery
2 small Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
1½ tsps dried thyme
½ tsp dried sage leaves, crumbled
5 cups chicken broth
1½ cups apple cider
2/3 cup sour cream
½ cup whipping cream
Chopped fresh chives

1. Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add squash, leeks, carrot, and celery; sauté until slightly softened, about 15 minutes. Mix in apples, thyme, and sage. Add broth and 1 cup cider and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until apples are tender, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes. Cool slightly.
2. Working in batches, puree the soup in a blender. Return soup to pan. Boil remaining ½ cup cider in a small, heavy saucepan until reduced to ¼ cup, about 5 minutes. Cool. Place sour cream in a small bowl and whisk in the reduced cider.
3. Bring the soup to a simmer. Mix in the whipping cream. Ladle the soup into bowls, drizzle with the cider cream, and garnish with chives. Serves 10, and they'll worship you.

That's all for now. Tomorrow I hope to be more awake and creative. Pigs may fly, too. But I'll do my best.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Easterlin Paradox and the Economics of Happiness

I thought I'd said (written, moaned, bitched, kvetched, wailed, etc) everything I had to say about the current economic meltdown, but it turns out I was wrong. There's always someone or something out there waiting to push the "Spin Up Bilbo" button as soon as I get calmed down.

Today, the button-pusher is my old friend Katherine, who sent me a link to this article by Nicholas Kristoff: The Downturn's Upside. This was the first non gloom-and-doom article I've read on the economic crisis, and included data points such as "each one-percentage-point drop in unemployment in the United States is associated with an extra 3,900 deaths from heart attacks," and, "in downturns we drive less and so car accidents decline, while less business activity means fewer job accidents and less pollution. Moreover, in recessions people have more leisure time and seem to smoke less, exercise more and eat more healthily."

All this is not much comfort to those hardest hit by the crisis, but it's interesting nevertheless. It demonstrates something called The Easterlin Paradox: the fact that, contrary to expectation, happiness does not increase with wealth once one's basic needs are fulfilled. In other words, people don't get happier as they get richer. The Easterlin Paradox says that - theoretically, of course - Bilbo sliding home from economic third every payday just ahead of the catcher's economic tag should be happier than Donald Trump having to buy a new bank each month to store his excess cash.

Is it true? Is there a point of diminishing returns after which being richer doesn't equate to being happier? Mr Kristoff's article quotes Alan Krueger, a Princeton University economist who "is conducting extensive research on happiness," as saying that "What seems to matter much more (than more money) is having good friends and family, and time to spend on social activities."

That much certainly seems true to me. When I think honestly about it, good friends and social activities tend to enrich my life more than having a lot of extra cash. I've often commented that I don't want to be rich...I just don't want to be worried all the time about how I'll pay for the necessities - the mortgage, the doctor bills, the food, and so on. I wouldn't turn down the extra cash of course (who would?), but after a certain point it would probably cease to have much meaning. My mother used to tell us that we would enjoy things more if we had to wait and work for much of this was based on the maternal limitation of childish expectations and how much was honest philosophy I'll never know, but it did turn out to be true: I tend to appreciate more the things I've had to work to attain.

The Bible (1 Timothy 6:10) tells us, "For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows." I may have lost faith in the economy, but the love and support of the World's Best Wife and a stable of good friends (both virtual and physical) have helped me avoid being pierced by those many sorrows. Maybe there's something to the Easterlin Paradox after all.

But if you have a problem with excess cash, I'll help store it for you.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, October 20, 2008

A Worthwhile Written Report

One of the things that comes with a love of language is a sense of head-shaking disbelief at how it can be abused. I have often recommended the book Anguished English by Richard Lederer as a field guide to linguistic abominations, but you don't have to spend money on a book when examples abound all around you every day.

One of the things I'm occasionally called upon to do in my job is review government documents being proposed for release to the public, to ensure that they (the documents, not the public) are unclassified and suitable for widespread dissemination. Last week, I was asked to review for public release a set of briefing slides to be used at an upcoming conference. While I found the briefing as a whole to be suitable for public release, I also found it contained a slide titled "Deliverables," the first bullet of which stated that "(The) Workshop will produce a worthwhile written report."

Why do you suppose the author felt it necessary to specify that the written report would be worthwhile? Had this not been clearly spelled out, would the workshop have produced a written report that was not worthwhile? Or was even worthless?


Similar expressions are created when people feel the need to insert modifiers to make their statements sound more weighty. How often have you heard some politician seeking your vote promising that he (or she) will take effective action to accomplish some worthy end? Would you expect them to take ineffective action?

Well, of course you would, but that's not my point.

Another fingernails-on-the-chalkboard expression for me is the single most, as in "This is the single most tuneless, obnoxious, misogynistic rap song I've ever heard."

If something is the most, the implication that it won't be exceeded. Can you have two things that are the most? If you can have a single most, can you also have a double most? Or a triple most?

A third category of linguistic torture is provided by buzzwords. Buzzwords are those popular, if meaningless expressions that swaddle us in obfuscation, hiding and diffusing meaning to prevent someone's actually having to state something clearly and positively that could eventually come back to bite one in the ... um ... fanny. You know what I mean: "My administration will, at the end of the day, leverage the proactive utilization of synergies for an empowered and client-focused approach to the systematic resolution of blah, blah, blah..." You may have seen variations of the game called "Buzzword (or Bull...t) Bingo," in which players attending meetings or listening to presentations fill in bingo-like cards in which the spaces are meaningless buzzwords likely to be heard. You can find an assortment of useful cards here.

I could write more, but the hour grows late and it's time to pack my lunch and sally forth to my little corner of corporate America...where I will, hopefully, be able to avoid being possessed by linguistic evil spirits as I clutch my ballpoint pen and Number 2 pencil like powerful talismans of protection.

Wish me luck.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Bilbo Wins (and Redistributes) the Superior Scribbler Award!

I was pleasantly surprised yesterday to discover that I had been presented with a blogging award by Melissa B, The Scholastic Scribe. This is my coveted "Superior Scribbler Award":

Because Melissa is a high school journalism teacher, I must assume that this means she has chosen to overlook my occasional leaps of logic, typos, and general orneriness in making her generous decision to bestow this award. There are, however, a few rules and obligations which came with it:

1. I must pass it on to five other deserving bloggers (see below);
2. I must link to the author and to the name of the blog from whom I received the award (see above);
3. I must display the award on my blog and link to Melissa's post which explains said award (see my "honor roll" to the left, and the link above);
4. I had to add my name to the "Mr Linky List" (which I did, after figuring out what the #%$! a "Mr Linky List" was); and finally,
5. I had to post the rules on my blog (see 1-4 above, and reread this line).

Whew. Now I'm tired.

Thanks, Melissa, for the award, which I now pass on to the following five entertaining recipients who must now spend part of their day complying with your rules (although, knowing some of these people's approach to things, I can't vouch for the compliance rate)...

1. Amanda and The Milk Bar. Amanda is a stay-at-home mom whose blog documents her adventures in raising a dynamic two-year-old and her travels around Indonesia, Australia, and Malaysia. She takes great pictures and writes very funny and perceptive posts. And she writes a mean snail-mail letter, too.

2. Lacochran at lacochran's bloggery. The fact that she's decided, after we carried on a long-running disagreement, that I'll never change (don't hold yer breath on that one) doesn't change the fact that she writes very clever and entertaining posts...and makes the best use of endnotes of any blogger I've yet run across.

3. Gilahi at The Gilahi Blog. The self-described "aging hippie" with whom I sometimes philosophically disagree, but who writes some very good stuff. If you aren't laughing until tears roll down your cheeks at his descriptions of performing jury duty (Part 1 and Part 2) and of painting the ceiling, you need to check your pulse. You da man!

4. Zipcode at Capitol Hill 20210. A lady I wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of (she owns multiple weapons - including a shotgun - and pals around with beefy law-enforcement types), but who always serves up entertaining and interesting observations. And I stand in awe of her ability to generate descriptive new terms for morons: who else uses terms like "assmidget"?

And, finally,

5. The Green Canary. A one-woman soap opera whose lengthy descriptions of dating woes and driving difficulties are the stuff of legend. Hope things continue to work out with Mr Mystery...

Well, there you go. Five new recipients of the Superior Scribbler Award. Don't forget that, while I've passed it on to you, the ultimate owner is a real teacher who will march down the aisle and smack your knuckles with a ruler if you don't live by the rules. I know about these things...I went to a Catholic grade school back when the nuns wore habits and believed in corporal punishment!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Facts and Confessions

Back on Friday, fiona tagged me with a meme that's been zipping around the blogosphere. Normally, I don't reply to memes because they tend to make blogging a worse time sink than it already is, but since fiona is new to my group of followers...and since I have a few minutes before I have to get Agnes up for breakfast, I'll make an exception and take on her meme.

The rules are:
1. Link to your tagger and list these rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 facts about yourself on your blog, some random, some weird.
3. Tag 7 people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blog.
4. Let them know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

I'll do 1 and 2, but I'll take a pass on tagging anyone else, partly because all the people I'd care to tag have already been tagged by fiona or lacochran, and partly because I'm just an ornery, rule-breaking bazoo of the first order.

Okay, you asked for it...

Seven Facts About Bilbo, Some Random, Some Weird

1. I will read anything, anywhere. There is not a single room in our house that is not piled with books, and one of the four chairs at our kitchen table is usually heaped with books and magazines. When I go to the rest room at work, if I don't have something to read while I'm on the throne, I'll look for a stall that has abandoned newspapers in it.

2. I love ballroom dancing, but am woefully uncoordinated. This means (1) it takes me forever to learn new patterns and routines; and (2) I hate to practice because I get frustrated easily.

3. I think it's very sexy for a woman to have hairy arms.

4. I hate to feel messy, although looking messy is okay. I can't stand to have sticky, sweaty, or otherwise yucky hands or face (tough, when your grandchild is a toddler who always wants to share all her half-chewed goo with you), and wash my hands about 750 times a day. But I love to wear jeans and old, ratty, comfortable t-shirts. One of Agnes's most common comments to me when we're getting ready to go somewhere is, "Are you going to wear that?"

5. I love to cook, and am very good at it (shameless self-congratulatory moment here). However, I can't bake to save my life. If my main dishes are symphonies, my baked goods are duets for harpsichord and kazoo.

6. I will sometimes completely and utterly lose it if something strikes me as particularly funny. Last week in the office, one of my coworkers read this headline he saw on CNN: "North Korea Replaces Nuclear Seals," and without missing a beat, someone else said, "...with Conventional Seals." I laughed so long and so hard at the mental image that I started to choke. Everyone else thought I was nuts.

7. I think far-right Republicans and far-left Democrats are all brainless wingnuts (zipcode would call them something more unique, like "assmidgets"). I can't watch TV news because I want to throw large, heavy objects at moronic talking heads, and I can't afford to replace the TV several times a day.

There you have facts and confessions. I won't tag anyone else for this, but if you're reading and want to take a stab at it, be my guest. Just let me know so I can see what you said.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Cartoon Saturday

Cloris Leachman is still, somehow, on Dancing with the Stars; we still have to face three more weeks of political attack ads; the economy is still in the toilet; and I'm still waiting for anyone to admit any responsibility for it.

We still need Cartoon Saturday.

I'm tired of bitching about all the interrelated problems that led to the current financial mess. At least there are some cartoons we can look to for a grin in tough times...

The Sphinx has been described as mysterious, enigmatic, and inscrutable. It didn't have to be that way...

And finally, when I was going to the gym regularly, I had more fun watching other gym rats than actually working out...

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Assorted Friday Stuff

I'm still trying to get my head around the whole economic meltdown thing, but since my head isn't all that large, it's taking a while. In the meantime, here are a few assorted random things I found that may enlighten, interest, or entertain you on this Friday morning...

Agnes and I have lamented that this season's cast of Dancing with the Stars isn't quite as good as previous seasons have been. Now, here's the DWTS team we'd like to see...

CNN yesterday ran a story about a horse that not only paints, but has had his work shown at an exhibition. You can read the story here, and visit the horse's website (yes, he has his own website) here. Best quote from the story comes from a spokesman for the art show: "We have to admit that we did not expect the application of a horse."

Do you know the difference between a horse race and a presidential race? In a horse race, the whole horse runs.

Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin will appear on Saturday Night Live this weekend. She'll do well...she's watched the show before, from her living room in Alaska, so she's an expert.

One of the most often quoted people is Dr Samuel Johnson, who has been described as "the most distinguished man of letters in English history." Foreseeing the 2008 presidential campaign, he once said, "They have few sentiments, but they express them neatly; they have little meat, too, but they dress it well."

If you're going to make an informed decision in the upcoming election, it helps to have a sound education that will help you understand the issues. Well, maybe not understand, but at least grudgingly accept. In this regard, we are well and truly screwed, for as comedian Dennis Miller once commented: "You know there is a problem with the education system when you realize that out of the 3 R's only one begins with an R."

And in the same vein, historian and commentator Alvin Toffler has said that, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." I don't think he was specifically speaking about President Bush, but you never know.

And I leave you today with this thought from comedian Eddie Izzard: "The NRA says 'guns don't kill people, people do.' But I think that the gun helps. You know? I think it helps. I think that if you just walked around going 'Bang!' you wouldn't kill too many people would you? You'd have to be really dogdy on the heart for that to work."

Okay, that's enough. Time to get ready for work.

Have a good day. Cartoon Saturday is coming tomorrow...just in time to help you get over another week of political and economic balderdash.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

I Didn't Watch the Debate. Sue Me.

Yes, that's right. I didn't watch the make-or-break final debate. I came home from work, kicked back, fixed dinner (see the recipe at the end of this post), and went to bed at 9:15. As a result, this morning I feel much better and more rested than I would have if I'd sat and raged at the TV.

No more rants about the economy and venal bankers this morning. I need to rebuild my head of steam first. Instead, I have another ya-ha culled from my collection. You may have seen this before, but it's still funny - here are some new, updated metric measurement equivalents:

1 million microphones = 1 megaphone
1 million bicycles = 2 megacycles
365.25 days = 1 Unicycle
500 millinaries = 1 seminary
2000 mockingbirds = two kilomockingbirds
10 cards = 1 decacards
1/2 lavatory = 1 demijohn
2.71828 grams of turd = 1 natural log
1 kilogram of falling figs = 1 Fig Newton
1000 grams of wet socks = 1 Liter Hosen
1 millionth of a fish = 1 microfiche
2000 British Troops in Ireland = 2 kilohenry
453.6 graham crackers = 1 pound cake
3.14159 dates with an Italian girl = 1 Pizanno
1 trillion pins = 1 terrapin
1 trillion grams of brown marijuana = 1 Terracotta pot
1 million billion picolos = 1 gigolo
10 rations = 1 decoration
100 rations = 1 C-ration
10 millipedes = 1 centipede
3 1/3 tridents = 1 decadent
10 monologues = 5 dialogues
5 dialogues = 1 decalogue
2 monograms = 1 diagram
8 nickels = 2 paradigms
2 wharves = 1 paradox

And here's the recipe for last night's dinner - you'll be able to hear your arteries slamming shut from blocks away, but it's soooooo good...and soooooo easy...

Eggs in Mustard Cream Sauce with Capers and Parsley
Serves 4

8 eggs
2 tbsps Dijon mustard
2 tbsps butter
2 tbsps flour
2 tbsps small capers
Fresh-squeezed lemon juice
2 egg yolks
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup vegetable broth
Salt and Pepper
Finely-chopped parsley

1. Hard-boil the eggs and set them aside.

2. Melt the butter in a saucepan; stir in the flour and stir until smooth and golden brown. Add the vegetable broth and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the cream and stir to combine.

3. Remove the sauce from the heat. Blend the egg yolks with some of the warm sauce, the mustard, and the lemon juice, then stir the mixture into the sauce.

4. Stir the capers and parsley into the sauce and season with salt and pepper to taste.

5. Shell the eggs and cut each one in half. Arrange four halves on each plate, spoon the sauce over, and serve.

You'll thank me.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

More Whining About the Economy, Some Good Reading, and Some Humor

It seems that I spend a lot of time lately whining about the gaps in my education which leave important topics about which I know too little. One of these is, as I've said before, economics. Not only don't I understand it, but I don't think it's inherently understandable.

For instance, I've long believed that the underlying foundation (is that redundant?) of economics is psychology. Things have value only because we believe they do. Banks loan us the money for mortgages because they trust us to pay the money back with the interest they will use for other things (or, at least, that's how it used to be). We accept that the pieces of paper and discs of metal we call "money" will be accepted by others at a level of value upon which we agree. Lenders offer us credit cards with a certain credit limit based on their trust that we'll pay the money back...if not in full, then in part and on a regular basis.

Trust and faith are, thus, the basis of economics.

Or were, until recently. Now we know that the banks that gave out all those "toxic" mortgages never expected to be repaid, because they bundled all those problematic mortgages and sold them as "investments" to someone else who, theoretically, trusted that the payments on those mortgages would roll in as a regular source of income. When the mortgage holders defaulted, it wasn't the problem of the original issuing became the problem of whoever held the mortgage at the time...and since no one knows where all those mortgages are, bankers and investment houses no longer trust each other.

The true casualty of the economic crisis is, thus, trust. Banks don't loan to each other (or to you and I, any more) because they don't believe that the person or institution asking for the loan can be trusted to pay them back...and incredibly enough, even government payments of tens of billions of dollars directly to failing banks isn't enough to restore that trust. We don't trust our financial advisors to be competent, or to have our interests rather than theirs at heart. We don't trust our banks to be good stewards of the money we've entrusted to their care. And, of course, good old greed is at work, too, with banks waiting to see how much they can extort from the government before sighing and getting back to the people's work.

The First National Bank of Bilbo's Mattress is starting to look pretty good.

Steven Perlstein, writing in the Washington Post yesterday, said what I'd been thinking when he wrote this article: It's Wall Street's Turn to Bolster Confidence. In this wonderful article, he writes:

"If Wall Street were truly serious about convincing Main Street that we're all in this together, its top executives would have stepped before the cameras yesterday and promised not to cut lines of credits to long-standing business customers who have never missed a payment.

"They would have committed themselves not to foreclose on any homeowner who is willing and able to refinance into a new, government-guaranteed, fixed-rate mortgage set at 85 percent of the current value of the property.

"They would have offered to suspend dividend payments until capital levels had been restored to pre-crisis levels.

"They would have given us their solemn promise not to advise clients to hold on to their own investments while quietly dumping whatever they can from their own portfolios and shorting every security in sight.

"With the Treasury now desperate for help in managing its new rescue efforts, they would have volunteered, at no cost to taxpayers, the services of some of those investment bankers and financial wizards who now don't have much else to do.

"And the maharajas of finance could have set a wonderful example if they had all gotten together and agreed to work for a dollar a year until the crisis has passed."

As Mr Pearlstein asks at the conclusion of his article, where's the leadership on Wall Street to match the leadership shown (belatedly) in Washington?

Oh, well...

Humor is another part of psychology, and if we can still laugh (or at least groan) when everything looks bleak, perhaps it can help get us through. Therefore...

Question: what's the difference between an investment banker and a pigeon? A pigeon can still make a deposit on a new Ferrari.

You may have seen this photo of angry investment bankers demonstrating against the restrictions which accompany their government bailouts:

Two investment bankers were discussing their horrific losses in the collapsing Stock Market. "This is worse than a divorce!" moaned one. "How do you figure that?" asked the other. "I've lost half my net worth, and I've still got the same wife!"

I've got the same wife, too...but she's the best investment I ever made. At least I have something I can trust and depend on.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

It's the Economy, Stupid...or It's the Stupid Economy, I Can Never Remember Which

Can you imagine? As soon as the governments of the major economic powers got together and gave their banks almost two trillion dollars as a bribe (okay, a confidence-building measure) to get them to do something about the credit crisis, the stock markets have magically rallied - yesterday, the Dow posted its biggest one-day gain in history. See how easy it was to resolve the crisis - just throw lots of money at the people who helped cause it in the first place!

Unfortunately, it's unlikely that any of that two trillion dollars is going to help my IRA and 401(k) any time soon, but hey - someone will be helped. Maybe AIG can have another spa vacation for its execs. I'll do my part.

The other day, Miss Cellania had a great post about the effect of the economic crisis on Japanese banks:

* The Origami Bank has folded;

* Sumo Bank has gone belly up;

* Bonsai Bank announced plans to cut some branches;

* Karaoke Bank is up for sale and will likely go for a song;

* Shares in Kamikaze Bank were suspended after they nose-dived;

* Samurai Bank has had to cut its staff in half;

* Ninja Bank is reported to have taken a hit, but remains in the black;

* 500 staff at Karate Bank got the chop; and,

* Analysts report that something fishy is going on at Sushi Bank, where it is feared that staff may get a raw deal.

A good quote about economics:

Franklin D. Roosevelt: "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; now we know that it is bad economics."

And a few thoughts about economists:

George Bernard Shaw: "If all the economists in the world were laid end-to-end, they would never reach a conclusion."

From the great Roman philosopher, Anonymous:

"The economy depends upon economists as much as the weather depends on weather forecasters."


"Isn't it strange? The same people who laugh at gypsy fortune tellers take economists seriously."

That's all for now...time to go to work to earn the money I can invest so that it won't be there when I retire. Sigh.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, October 13, 2008

Elephant Collars

Everyone enjoyed yesterday's post about elephant hunting so much that I figured, why not stick with success?

You may have noticed this article on CNN late yesterday: Texts from Elephant Warn Rangers of Trouble. My first mental image on seeing this headline was of a member of the elephant Neighborhood Watch peering from behind a tree, using his enormous thumbs to frantically tap out a warning message about poachers on his Blackberry (or whatever similar device elephants might use - a Blackbreadfruit? a Blackseedpod?). But no, the story is actually about a high-tech collar which combines cellular and GPS technology to send a message to Kenyan rangers when a problem elephant is about to stray into someone's farm for a seems that many elephants are killed each year by angry farmers who object to the beasts' view of their farms as a free salad bar. When the rangers receive the message, they quickly drive to the elephant's location and use lights and noise to scare him back to his protected preserve.


I wonder how much it would cost to equip all the $#&@! deer in my neighborhood with those collars so I can summon help to keep them out of my garden?

There may be other uses for these collars, too, if we can just master the technology.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could equip presidential candidates with a collar that would automatically send a warning when they stray too far from the truth in their wild accusations against each other?

How about a collar for investment brokers that would broadcast alerts when they invented some new, complicated, opaque and utterly worthless "investment vehicle" that has no value other than their immediate enrichment?

Or a collar that monitors the wearer for outrageous offenses against logic and common sense, and broadcasts a signal that could warn most of us, but be conveniently ignored by those who believe such balderdash without thinking critically on their own?

When I finally win the lottery, I think I'll hire some 800-pound brains to start working on developing those collars. The possibilities are endless.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Hunting Elephants

First of all, let me say that I am opposed to hunting elephants, especially after reading the marvelous story Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. And who, after all, cannot feel a pang of regret at the immortal words of African explorer Geoffrey T. Spaulding (aka Groucho Marx) in the film Animal Crackers: "I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I'll never know."


Trolling through the murky depths of my enormous digital and paper files of nearly 57 years of accumulated humorous stuff, I found this piece, which describes the approaches of people of different occupations to hunting elephants. If you love elephants, just substitute the name of some animal you don't particularly care for, and make the appropriate corrections...

The first three are for zero_zero_one:

MATHEMATICIANS hunt elephants by going to Africa, throwing out everything that is not an elephant, and catching one of whatever is left.

EXPERIENCED MATHEMATICIANS will attempt to prove the existence of at least one unique elephant before proceeding to step 1 as a subordinate exercise.

PROFESSORS OF MATHEMATICS will prove the existence of at least one unique elephant and then leave the detection and capture of an actual elephant as an exercise for their graduate students.

COMPUTER SCIENTISTS hunt elephants by exercising Algorithm A:
1. Go to Africa.
2. Start at the Cape of Good Hope.
3. Work northward in an orderly manner, traversing the continent alternately east and west.
4. During each traverse pass,
(1) Catch each animal seen.
(2) Compare each animal caught to a known elephant.
(3) Stop when a match is detected.

EXPERIENCED COMPUTER PROGRAMMERS modify Algorithm A by placing a known elephant in Cairo to ensure that the algorithm will terminate.

ASSEMBLY LANGUAGE PROGRAMMERS prefer to execute Algorithm A on their hands and knees.

HARDWARE ENGINEERS hunt elephants by going to Africa, catching gray animals at random, and stopping when any one of them weighs within plus or minus 15 percent of any previously observed elephant.

ECONOMISTS don't hunt elephants, but they believe that if elephants are paid enough, they will hunt themselves.

REPUBLICANS don't hunt elephants, but believe that if the elephants remain unregulated and pay less taxes, they will breed to such an extent that it will no longer be necessary to hunt for them.

DEMOCRATS don't hunt elephants, but believe that if they are guaranteed health care, a living minimum wage, and a good education, they will breed to such an extent that they will eventually hunt everyone else.

STATISTICIANS hunt the first animal they see N times and call it an elephant.

CONSULTANTS don't hunt elephants, and many have never hunted anything at all, but they can be hired by the hour to advise those people who do.

OPERATIONS RESEARCH CONSULTANTS can also measure the correlation of hat size and bullet color to the efficiency of elephant-hunting strategies, if someone else will only identify the elephants.

POLITICIANS don't hunt elephants, but they will share the elephants you catch with the people who voted for them.

LAWYERS don't hunt elephants, but they do follow the herds around arguing about who owns the droppings.

SOFTWARE LAWYERS will claim that they own an entire herd based on the look and feel of one dropping.

SENIOR MANAGERS set broad elephant-hunting policy based on the assumption that elephants are just like field mice, but with deeper voices.

QUALITY ASSURANCE INSPECTORS ignore the elephants and look for mistakes the other hunters made when they were packing the jeep.

STOCKBROKERS don't hunt elephants but spend their time selling elephants they haven't caught, for delivery two days before the season opens.

SOFTWARE SALES PEOPLE ship the first thing they catch and write up an invoice for an elephant.

HARDWARE SALES PEOPLE catch rabbits, paint them gray, and sell them as desktop elephants.

I hope this clears up any issues you may have with hunting elephants. I am now going to hunt for my Sunday newspaper, which I plan to enjoy at my kitchen table with a nice cup of coffee while waiting for my Very Best Beloved to wake up and join me for breakfast.

And then I plan to do as little as possible for the rest of the day. So there.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Cartoon Saturday

Your retirement fund is in the toilet, Congress is too busy pointing fingers to fix the financial mess, female suicide bombers are the latest rage in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you can't buy anything that isn't made in China...and there's melamine in all of it.

No question, you need another shot of Cartoon Saturday.

Penguins are cute, lovable, and silly in pictures, but can be vicious when provoked. They're great subjects for cartoons, though...

Cowboys are good for a few cartoon laughs also, especially when they bump up against the modern world...

I always happily accept any great cartoons you may happen to run across. E-mail them to bilbo_the_blogger (at) yahoo dot com. Look at it as an investment in Cartoon Saturday...the only investment nowadays that will make you laugh instead of cry.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Heavy Thoughts

I was out shopping the other day and, as so often happens, an interesting new book jumped off the shelf and concealed itself among the groceries until I reached the checkout, by which time I was, of course, obligated to buy it. The new book is The Worst-Case Scenario Almanac: History, by Joshua Piven, David Borgenicht, Piers Marchant, and Melissa Wagner, and it contains all sorts of interesting (whether true or not) information about history presented in the fashion of the Worst-Case Scenario book series (you can see the rest if you click the link above and scroll down to the "also bought" section).

I was interested to note in the section on the Middle Ages a chart which compares the weight of a suit of armor to the weight of a 21st-century business suit. Here's how it breaks down:

Suit of Armor: Helmet, breastplate, gauntlet, and leggings - 45 pounds; sword and scabbard - 8 pounds. Total weight: 53 pounds.

Business Suit: Jacket, pants, shirt, tie, and belt - 5 pounds; shoes - 3.5 pounds; gadgets (PDA, cell phone, etc) - 1 pound. Total weight: 9.5 pounds.

All things considered, I'm glad I'm able to wear a business suit, not least because arguments over seats on the bus could get really ugly really fast if we all wore armor and carried swords.

Related question: does a police officer wear a law suit?

Moving on to the Renaissance, the book offers a comparison of the most and least fearsome names of European rulers. The "Most Fearsome" are:

Vlad the Impaler;
Charles the Hammer;
Peter the Cruel;
Ivan the Terrible;
John the Fearless; and,
Richard the Lionhearted.

While the "Least Fearsome" are:

Ivar the Boneless;
Radu the Handsome;
Philip the Good;
Ivan the Great;
Louis the Pious; and,
Theodoric the Great.

I wonder how they missed the ever-popular and unfortunately-named Ethelred the Unready.

This, of course, makes one wonder why we don't still use colorful names for our leaders. History might record such mighty and not-so-mighty leaders as:

King George the Decider;
Lady Sarah the Moose-Gutter (our answer to Vlad the Impaler);
Lord Cheney the Aimless; and,
Bilbo the Bewildered.

I'm tired of thinking. Time to go to work so I can stop.

Have a good day. Wear the right suit, and make sure your greaves match.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, October 09, 2008

Damned if You Do, Damned If You Don't, etc.

Just when you thought the ongoing presidential campaign couldn't get any worse...

Controversy has broken out over the cover of this week's issue of Newsweek magazine, which featured a close-up of Governor Sarah Palin's face. Here is the cover in question:

The problem, evidently, is that the picture is a warts-and-all, non-Photoshopped photo. You can see that the governor has ... gasp! ... wrinkles and blemishes! If you look really closely, you can see that she has a few stray hairs on her upper lip. The horror! Why, some Republican media strategists are asking, would Newsweek run such an awful picture? Why not run her official photo as governor of Alaska? Here's that one, with all the offending blemishes and such artfully brushed away:

At the risk of sounding "sexist" (whatever that means), let me say I think that Governor Palin is a very attractive lady. I'm a guy. I think unfortunate things like that when I see attractive ladies. Now, the fact that the governor is an attractive lady obviously doesn't make her as qualified to be vice president as much as, say, living within sight of Russia makes her an expert on foreign policy, but who cares? The reality train left this campaign station a long time ago.

You may remember a few years back, one of the news magazines (I think it was Newsweek) ran into a huge buzzsaw of outrage when it ran a full-face photo of a scowling O.J. Simpson during his murder trial. At that time, the issue was that the photo had, in fact, been Photoshopped to darken Mr Simpson's complexion and make him look more menacing.

As long as I'm taking observational risks, let me crawl further out on the opinion limb by comparing the Simpson apple to the Palin orange. When is it kosher to Photoshop a picture? Clearly, the adjustment of Mr Simpson's picture to make him look worse showed an astounding lack of editorial judgment, if not common sense and human sensitivity. But why is it then wrong to complain about not Photoshopping Governor Palin's picture? She certainly doesn't need digital enhancement to look attractive...we're not talking about the Wicked Witch of the West, after all (at least in the looks department...political philosophies are a discussion for another day).

'Nuff said.

Speaking of attractive ladies, I noted this morning that the indefatigable Hugh Hefner is down to two live-in girlfriends, having broken up with main squeeze Holly Madison.

Read all about it here. It seems that Ms Madison was unwilling to continue on with the 82-year-old Mr Hefner because he didn't want to get married and have children.


Somehow, the thought that the over-80 Mr Hefner, surrounded every day by beautiful golddiggers, would want to settle down to a life of changing diapers and playing with toddlers strikes me as being a little ... well ... naive. After all, as Mr Hefner was quoted in the article as saying, "There's been moments that I've been down in the dumps about all this, and (my personal assistant) told me to cheer up and pointed out that there are girls lined up outside the front gate. At my age, that's hard to believe, but it seems to be true."

Go for it, Hef. I'll stick with my grandchildren. Somehow, I think I'm happier.

Have a good day. Send me your favorite picture - Photoshopped or not - of yourself. Mike, the one from the Post Office will do fine.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008


Everyone likes to be recognized for their work. Napoleon once said that "A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon," and it's true that military people often crave the recognition inherent in a colorful medal, ribbon, or sash. In the world of business, we present workers with certificates, small gifts, or similar things (often in lieu of cash). Those sorts of things aren't always received in the right spirit, though. Years ago when I was working in Berlin, our commander presented a certificate of recognition to one of our more outspoken local national employees who, preferring a raise or bonus to a piece of paper, took the certificate, looked at it, ostentatiously folded it roughly in quarters, and shoved it into his back pocket before returning to his seat.

There are all sorts of professional recognition. Actors crave receipt of an Oscar (although the Academy Awards are somewhat diminished by the proliferation of awards for obscure things: "Best Use of Left-Handed Cross-Dressing Midgets in a Scene Filmed in Less Than Four Takes," for instance). Musicians want Grammies. Theater actors want a Tony. People who design and produce annoying TV commercials would love to win a Clio. And so it goes.

A week or two ago came the announcement of the 2008 Ig Nobel awards, presented annually by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine to scientific research that "first make people laugh, then make them think." My favorite of this year's Ig Nobel prizes went to an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico who knew of existing studies that found women are more attractive to men when at peak fertility. The professor and his assistants decided to expand on this knowledge by studying the earnings of ... um ... exotic dancers. They ... er ... studied 18 "subjects," learning that, on average, they earned $250 for a five-hour shift. However, the same ladies earned $350 to $400 per five-hour shift when they were at their most fertile. The practical result of this research appeared to be that, based on "anecdotal evidence," some lap dancers scheduled their shifts at times of maximum fertility to enhance their earnings.

Now that's my kind of scientific research.

You can read the whole story of this year's Ig Nobel awards here.

I think I'm going to propose some research worthy of an Ig Nobel award for next year. My topic will be "Harnessing the Energy of Political Campaigns: Proposals for the Capture and Efficient Use of Hot Air and Bull...t."

There's no shortage of research material, after all.

Have a good day. Do something worthy of an award. More thoughts tomorrow.